‘Spilling your guts is just exactly as charming as it sounds,” comic essayist Fran Lebowitz once wrote. But there is a certain kind of movie (it’s usually adapted from a stage play) in which cultured, well educated people do just that. The characters end up devastated and sobbing, although there is usually some kind of catharsis in which they are better off for knowing more about themselves and each other.
The gold standard for this type of film is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which Mike Nichols directed the screen adaptation of the Edward Albee play about two academic couples who seem to have it all but turn out to be miserable. An unglamorous Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in it, and their voracious scenery-chewing made it fun to watch. A more recent example is Roman Polanski’s star-studded film Carnage, an adaptation of the hit play God of Carnage.
Le Prenom is a Gallic variation on this theme, in which we learn that two Parisian couples plus a close friend, all of whom have glamorous careers and fabulous apartments, have all kinds of hidden resentments toward each other. It is driven by a single plot point: One of them announces that he will name his unborn baby Adolphe. The others react just the way you would expect anyone to: They think he is joking. I won’t give away the only suspense this film has going for it, but suffice it to say this political epater la bourgeoisie device is just a jumpingoff point for the deeper personal conflicts among this attractive, wellheeled group of lifelong friends.
The film is based on a stage play by Matthieu Delaporte that has been translated into Hebrew and is being performed in Israel, where it has generated some controversy among theater buffs. Most people, though, will have the same reaction to the argument over the name that some of the characters do: It’s a stupid and offensive gesture. To which I would add: Parents ought to choose names that will minimize, and not guarantee, the chances that their children will become the target of ridicule. But such obvious answers are beside the point. We’re supposed to start debating something about the nature of political correctness and taboos here. If that sounds a bit annoying, that’s because it is. However, the movie is well crafted and well acted, and if you get bored (which is quite possible), you can enjoy the scenery, which consists of one of the most attractive apartments captured on film in recent years.
The couple who live in the apartment are the ditzy academic Pierre (Charles Berling, who looks really good with a scruffy beard) and his liberal, idealistic school teacher wife, Elizabeth (Valerie Benguigui).
She has prepared a Moroccan style feast for their guests. The first to arrive is her longtime best pal, Claude (Guillaume de Tonquedec), a confirmed bachelor who is a classical musician. He is soon joined by her brother, the arrogant Vincent (Patrick Bruel, who starred in Un Secret and is well known as a singer), a real estate broker, and his wife, Anna (Judith El Zein), who works in the fashion industry. As they debate the merits of naming Vincent and Anna’s child Adolphe or Adolf, it turns out that each has something he or she is seething over. Elizabeth hates it that her cooking and housekeeping are taken for granted, Claude has some news about his hidden personal life that shocks everyone, and so on. The revelations that spill forth are either so predictable they are banal, or so improbable that they simply don’t make dramatic sense.
While I’m with Fran Lebowitz on the charm of spilling your guts, many people seem to love this type of film and to equate the candor, however unpleasant or unlikely, with depth. These people will be riveted and will leave the theater debating questions such as why Adolf is verboten but Joseph is still a popular name, in spite of Stalin. Most audience members will find themselves checking their watches and will stare longingly at the lovely timepieces that belong to the characters.
Written and directed by: Alexandre de La Patelliere and Matthieu Delaporte.
Running time: 109 minutes.
Hebrew title: Shem Prati.
(In French, with English and Hebrew subtitles)